Sun kings and sylphs, glamour and grit

A short history of ballet

The Sun King

Ballet began as an elaborate aristocratic entertainment in Italy and France, where it was performed by noble amateurs (predominantly men) in the halls of grand estates and palaces. Combining dance, music and song, the earliest ballets were enactments of events from mythology, heavy on gods and heroes, and featuring wildly fantastical costumes and masks.

Court ballets reached their pinnacle during the reign of Louis XIV, a keen dancer himself, who was dubbed the Sun King after his role in Le Ballet de la Nuit (1653), which ran from sunset to sunrise. His personal ballet master, Pierre Beauchamp, choreographed many of the dances performed at Versailles and is credited with codifying ballet as a system of movement. Louis’ legacy includes the establishment of the Academie d’Opera (the forerunner of the Paris Opéra Ballet) in 1669, which paved the way for ballet as a profession.

Louis XIV as Apollo, 1653

From aristocrats’ play to playing aristocrats

Following the French fashion, theatres and opera houses sprang up across Europe during the 1700s, positioning ballet dancers as part of a cosmopolitan community of performers, nobles and intellectuals. As ballet’s reach expanded, so did interest in its dramatic possibilities. By mid-century, several choreographers were developing ballet as a story-telling medium, with the familiar gods and heroes, but also nobles and princesses, peasants and romantic trysts.

Women contributed to this age of experimentation, although they remained in the minority. Both Francois Prevost and her student Marie Sallé created works exploring the expressive possibilities of face and gesture. In an age when few women ventured into the public spotlight, danseuses were a fascinating and often highly regarded novelty. Poetry was written in their praise, gossip exchanged, and paintings commissioned by earnest admirers; Frederick the Great kept a portrait of Barbara Campanini in his study.

Portrait of Barbara Campanini by Antoine Pesne

Enter the pointe shoe

The French Revolution and the wars that followed profoundly altered ballet, sweeping away the lingering, courtly trappings of baroque dance. Dancers shed their heeled shoes and heavy brocades in favour of light, looser-fitting outfits that allowed them a wider range of movement. The era became synonymous with dazzling feats. The introduction of soft slippers encouraged multiple pirouettes and higher leaps, and a new trick – posing en pointe – was pioneered by dancers like Fanny Bias and Amalia Brugnoli.

While ballets based on mythological themes persisted, choreographers increasingly focused on character, realism and nationalist values. New works, inspired by Romantic themes, transported audiences to the medieval past or exotic locales like China, Arabia or Mexico. Aided by innovative scenic effects, ballet by the 1820s was an enchanting realm of Gothic ruins and distant lands, enticing an ever-growing audience.

Polish ballet dancers at the 1827 Venice Carnival. Both dancers are women; one is performing as a man

Sylph Power

In 1832, the Paris premiere of La Sylphide introduced a distinctive Romantic style of dancing: a theatrical vision in which femininity, landscape, folk elements and the supernatural fluidly combined. The new style, popularised by Marie Taglioni as the eponymous sylph, was one of airy restraint and softened arms, and was marked by the use of pointe work as an artistic element, rather than a show of virtuosity.

La Sylphide’s success was followed by a series of iconic, French-made ballets featuring supernatural female characters, most famously Giselle in 1841. However, their appeal was equalled by an extraordinary vogue for national dances. The great Romantic ballerinas, including Fanny Elssler, Fanny Cerrito and Taglioni herself, danced a dazzling array of balleticised czardas, polkas, mazurkas and boleros. The period remains synonymous with the poetry and fire of these intrepid female celebrities.

Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot's ballet Zephire et Flore, circa 1831

Ballet in the music halls

By the 1870s, ballet was flourishing around the globe as an essential ingredient of popular entertainment. In Britain alone, dozens of new venues for ballet opened across the country. Some staged divertissements, pantomimes or narrative ballets based on well-known works like La Sylphide and Paquita. Others, like London’s Alhambra Theatre, specialised in lavish ballet “spectaculars” that celebrated patriotic pride and popular culture, employing vast numbers of buxom young women.

This was the age of the humble, downtrodden “ballet girl”, but it was also the age of feisty, creative women like Katti Lanner, who directed ballets for an enormous public of ordinary men and women. By 1900, music halls, rather than opera houses, were where stars like Adeline Genée, Pierina Legnani and Anna Pavlova captured people’s hearts. They also nurtured local talent, producing Britain’s first prima ballerina Phyllis Bedells, and Ninette de Valois, who would go on to found what is now The Royal Ballet.

Anna Pavlova

The Age of Petipa

Ballet was embraced by Russia’s rulers in the early 1700s as part of a project of cultural modernisation begun by Peter the Great. Over time, hundreds of leading dancers from Europe travelled to work in the Imperial Theatres, helping foster an outstanding native ballet tradition. The visitors included ballet masters like Franz Hilverding and Charles Didelot, celebrities such as Fanny Elssler, and virtuosic Italian ballerinas who starred alongside Russian-born talent. However, none left a greater legacy than Frenchman Marius Petipa, who was appointed ballet master of the Mariinsky Theatre in 1871. Across four decades, Petipa created some of the world’s best-loved ballets, including The Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère, and (in collaboration with his deputy Lev Ivanov) Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. After the Revolution, choreographic notations for many of Petipa’s most important ballets were smuggled to the West by Nicholas Sergeyev; they are still preserved, and are used to inform modern stagings of these famous ballets.

Marie Petipa as the Lilac Fairy and Lyubov Vishnevskaya as an Attendant in The Sleeping Beauty, 1890

Keeping it real

By the late 19th century, ballet had cheerfully given itself over to popular culture. In reaction to its excesses, a new form of “art dance” developed, influenced, initially, by three very purposeful women: Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis. They collectively spearheaded the appeal of new dance techniques, encouraging freer forms of expression influenced by nature and spirituality, as well as Symbolism and other artistic movements.

In the 20th century, America and Germany emerged as important centres for modern dance, producing choreographers such as Kurt Jooss and Martha Graham, whose approaches to movement and expression have immeasurably enriched ballet. Since the 1940s, numerous ballet companies have supported experimentation and cross-pollination by inviting modern choreographers to create new ballets. Today, The Australian Ballet continues this tradition with a repertoire that includes works by Maurice Bejart, Twyla Tharp, William Forsythe, Graeme Murphy and Wayne McGregor.

Ruth St Denis by Orval Hixon

The Ballets Russes

In the spring of 1909, Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev assembled an exceptional group of dancers, artists and musicians to present a short season of ballets in Paris. They dazzled theatre-goers, seduced the French press and thrust ballet into fashion’s limelight. For the next 20 years the nomadic Ballets Russes was synonymous with glamour, sophistication and the kaleidoscopic brilliance of the avant garde.

Under Diaghilev’s leadership, the company hosted trailblazing collaborations between composers like Stravinsky and Ravel, artists like Bakst, Picasso and Matisse, fashion designers like Coco Chanel, and dancers from the Imperial Ballet, including Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and Michel Fokine. The resulting ballets – Firebird (1910), Petrouchka (1911), Schéhérazade (1910) and Les Noces (1923) among them – set new standards for musical and choreographic complexity. Despite its name, the Ballets Russes never performed in Russia, but provided a dynamic haven for artists separated from their homeland by conflict, many of whom founded their own schools and companies.

Tamara Karsavina as Zobeida in Schéhérazade, 1911. Photography E.O. Hoppe

Red ballet

When revolution broke out in 1917, Russia’s dancers feared for the future of their Tsarist art. Yet, far from purging ballet, Soviet cultural policy embraced it, throwing open the theatres so that people might be improved through exposure to the nation’s balletic achievements. In St Petersburg, 19th-century classics provided the backbone of the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet’s repertoire. In Moscow, the rise of drambalet produced dancers of extraordinary stage presence, including Galina Ulanova, Vladimir Vasiliev and Maya Plisetskaya.

During the Cold War, tours by the Soviet companies became a key focus for improving Russia’s diplomatic relations with the West – despite the defections of dancers including Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. In the 1950s, Russian authorities also sent ballet teachers from the Kirov and Bolshoi to the People’s Republic of China. Although classical ballet was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, it survived under the auspices of Madame Mao. Today, Chinese-trained dancers perform with companies around the globe.

Galina Ulanova and Yury Zhdanov in Romeo and Juliet

Balanchine in America

After Diaghilev’s death, the Ballets Russes’ dancers dispersed. Among them was George Balanchine, who arrived in USA in 1933. He found himself in a country where ballet was the stuff of children teetering about in pointe shoes and curvaceous, prosaic ballerinas. Steeped in the traditions of Russian’s imperial ballet and the dynamism of the avant garde, Balanchine became the chief engineer of ballet in modern America.

A prolific choreographer, Balanchine created ballets referencing many different styles, from the neo-classicism of Apollo to the jazz-inflected Rubies, from the hoedowns of Western Symphony to his own immensely successful production of The Nutcracker, which drew on his childhood memories of St Petersburg. Among Balanchine’s most celebrated works, however, are his abstract ballets, including The Four Temperaments and Agon, modernist masterpieces that are timeless in their fusion of music and form. His ballets are now performed all over the world.

The Australian Ballet's Gaylene Cummerfield in Balanchine's Apollo, 2007

Gossamer and grit

In the 20th century, ballet in Britain was influenced not only by Russian emigrés, but also by the energies of newly inspired, determined dancers from the farthest corners of its former empire. They included Australians, Canadians and South Africans, and many came together as members of the Vic-Wells Ballet (later The Royal Ballet). One of several companies founded during the 1930s, it prospered thanks to the acumen of its Irish-born founder Ninette de Valois, and the choreographic talent of Frederick Ashton. His ballets revealed an extraordinary lightness of touch, wit and musicality, and included works created specifically for England’s favourite ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. Ashton’s successor, Kenneth MacMillan, worked with a younger, grittier generation of dancers. Both men created enormously diverse works, from comedies to abstract ballets, but MacMillan is best-remembered for his (then shocking) explorations of human frailty and sexuality. Today, their full-length ballets, including Romeo and Juliet, La Fille mal gardée and Manon, are regarded as 20th-century classics.

Men on the Map

At Paris’ Le Bourget airport, Rudolf Nureyev made his very public break for freedom in 1961. Thirteen years later, another brilliant young male dancer, Mikhail Baryshnikov, defected in Toronto by darting from the theatre into a waiting car. Both were superbly talented, charismatic and sexy. They were hungry to dance everything, and became pop-culture icons who raised the standard and kudos of male dancing in the West.

In the 1960s, Nureyev formed a legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn: they thrilled audiences all over the world. In the 1980s, he directed and choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet, where he restaged several full-length classics with new, more complex choreography for the male roles. In America, Baryshnikov made his mark dancing with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. Like Nureyev, he extended his celebrity through televised performances, roles in Hollywood films and other cameo appearances. Between them, they continue to inspire the artistry and adventurousness of male dancers.

Rudolf Nureyev and The Australian Ballet's Lucette Aldous in Don Quixote. Photography Paul Cox

Pushing the Limits

Today’s dancers are expected to perform a wider range of movements and dance styles than ever before, and dance medicine is playing an increasingly important role in helping them meet the demands on their bodies. Since the 1990s, an intensified interest in athleticism, speed and hyper-flexibility has seen many contemporary ballets explore the aesthetics of endurance itself. The French ballerina Sylvie Guillem, with her “six-o’clock” extension and sculpted muscles, both epitomised and inspired the new frontier of technique. Speed was rewriting creative processes, too, with shortening timeframes for creating and revising new works.

Today, ballet is telling new stories across a wider range of cultures than ever before. Leading choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, John Neumeier and Alexei Ratmansky are drawing fresh inspiration from literary classics. Many companies have also invested in historical reconstructions of 19th-century works. Meanwhile, the digital age is shifting our relationship with our passions, and for ballet it offers both challenges and opportunities.

Amber Scott and Ty King-Wall in Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella. Photography Lynette Wills

The truest expression of a people is in its dance and in its music. Bodies never lie.

Agnes De Mille

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